“Having a companion adds specific bonuses for each character, such as increases to the effectiveness of healing items, or stat increases . These bonuses are only in effect while that character is with you, and go away as soon as you dismiss them from your party.”
From page 15 of the manual for Fallout: New Vegas.
The Courier, protagonist in the Mojave Wastes, is different from his/her (for the sake of brevity, I’m going to make the Courier female, because that’s how I played the game) precursors in the earlier Fallout games in any number of ways. She’s not a Vault Dweller–no evidence that she’d ever seen the inside of one before the game began. She’s not a Chosen One–despite the role she plays in defining the Mohave, she got to where she was by stumbling across something bigger than she was by accident and just being too darn stubborn to die. And she’s not, not, not a Lone Wanderer, as the mechanic above indicates.
Having companions has been a staple of the series since, rumor has it, about ten minutes before the first one was shipped, when someone realized that, oh crap, this game is basically impossible if you didn’t spec for small weapons, maybe we should add a dude who’s good at shooting things and willing to tag along into incredibly deadly situations for a pittance, stick him in the first town, and just hope nobody randomly encounters a swarm of radroaches on the way there. NOT THAT I’M BITTER ABOUT THAT OR ANYTHING.
Anyway. While the integration of the companions was improved, narratively and mechanically, in part two, and kept about on par despite the genre shift in 3, I’d say it wasn’t until NV that I really felt that companions were a part of the game. Storylines and sidequests for everyone. An interface that made interacting with companions quick and intuitive. Reasonably effective stealth options if that’s your bailiwick. And the rule above: effects which are only in place when the character is by your side. If the doctor is with you, healing items are better; if the alcoholic is with you, booze is better; if the repairman is with you, all your weapons are better, and so on, and so forth… each potential companion has a perk attached to him or her or it which allows you some benefit if, and only if, the companion is by your side.
Mechanically I like this because, hey, it makes companion choice much more interesting than simply picking whomever has the best stats or the prettiest sprite and heading on your way. It affects how you play. But that’s not all it does. It makes companions something more than mobile turrets and loot-carriers. It makes them feel like active participants in the adventuring process.
I know, I know, practically speaking all that Arcade Gannon does (besides shoot dudes and spout sarcasm) is bathe me in a passive aura which makes stim-packs 25% more effective, I know this. But, at the risk of being a dude who uses the word “immersive” with a straight face, one can also make treat it as if what he’s doing is suggesting that I inject the thing in THIS vein, and not in THAT artery, for maximum effectiveness. Rex is sniffing and barking at interesting things. ED-E is tapping directly into my PIP-boy’s radar. They’re doing something, even if that’s not coming through directly on screen, to make them more than merely glorified pack mules.
(I wish, sometimes, that more had been done in this… perhaps the ED-E augmented radar could have a slightly different UI to signify that it has been hacked into, and perhaps Boone’s sniper-vision could be accompanied by a few clips of him whispering “Hostile at 12:00, 150 yards back,” and the like. Complexities that add nothing mechanical, but increase that connection between the rule and the story.)
Adding more story, more dialogue, and more personality to NPCs… that can only do so much. Real people accomplish things. Real people are useful. Sometimes, adding more mechanical interaction makes things more narratively compelling, and that’s a neat fact indeed.